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“Black Mirror,” COVID-19, Isolation, and the Scourge of Pornography

April 6, 2020


Black Mirror, a popular Twilight-Zone-style Netflix show, delves into profound questions about human existence and reflects on how technology impacts day-to-day life and interpersonal relationships. Many of the episodes, as dark and extreme as their illumination may be, put forth interesting and, at times, rather prophetic commentary. This commentary revolves around how a boundary-less acceptance of technological progress leads often not to a flourishing but a distortion, division, and destruction of human life.

One episode that caught my attention was “USS Callister” (season 4, ep. 1). The episode itself an homage to the Star Trek universe, the scene is set with Captain Robert Daly and his crew aboard a spaceship, the USS Callister, trying to defeat their arch-enemy Valdack. Captain Daly eventually saves the day and his crew members bathe him in praise and adoration. As we later learn, those on board the USS Callister are not as much his faithful crewmates as they are his virtual prisoners.

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In reality, the whole scene on the starship is a virtual recreation of Daly’s favorite childhood show, “Star Fleet.” In the real world, Daly is the CTO at Callister Inc.—a company that owns and operates the virtual reality game called Infinity. We learn that over time, Daly secretly took the DNA of some of his co-workers and cloned them into his virtual Star Fleet world on his private home server.

From the outset of the episode we see that Daly is a rather wounded individual in the real world. He is often laughed at by co-workers for being a bit awkward, while he tends towards social isolation. Daly also endures antagonistic pressure from his friend/company co-founder, who has come to take the programming giftedness of his friend for granted and has taken most of the credit for the company’s success.

When Daly appears in his virtual reality world, he seems to be far more confident than in the real world. He needs no eye glasses, his facial skin is smoother, and his hair is much fuller. All of these changes show us Daly’s insecurities and the “imperfections” he perceives in himself.

While watching the episode, I couldn’t help but draw an analogy between its theme—of the dangers of an unbridled world of virtual fantasy and technological isolation—and the scourge of internet pornography in the modern era.

It’s an understatement to say that we live in a hypersexualized culture. Yet, considering how externally blazoned licentious sexuality is in the public sphere, much of it is kept behind closed doors. For as liberated as our society claims to be, there exists a great, closeted, private slavery of the body, mind, and soul.

Most truly, what is found often behind these doors is not love, blissful intimacy, and consummate freedom, but rather woundedness, anger, loneliness, and an obsessive addiction to internet pornography. Internet porn has become the master sedative to insecurity and difficulty. Many of our brothers and sisters are fighting a great psychological and spiritual battle, daily, because of it.

Certainly, as our world now grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, with the increased obligation of social distancing and isolation and the heightened levels of personal stress, this pandemic threatens not only the bodies of those with underlying illness but the souls of many who already struggle with this underlying illness in their moral/spiritual lives.

Regardless of a biological pandemic threat, secular medical and psychological authorities have finally begun to call unbridled access to internet pornography a societal epidemic. Even outside of religious belief, it is becoming increasingly clear that even casual use of pornography is not healthy human behavior. It does not lead to human flourishing, but distortion, division, and even destruction of the human person. Yet our religious belief can further inform us that there is something deeply problematic about the use of pornography, particularly in an overly accessible, technological age.

A profound theological seed can be found early in the Dark Mirror episode. While Linette—one of Daly’s digitally abducted co-workers—admires some of Daly’s Star Fleet memorabilia, a line sticks out on the movie poster attached to the wall: “Star Fleet: Featuring the Mystery of Infinite Reality.” In fact, it is an essential desire of humanity to discover the mystery of infinite reality! This is truly what Daly seeks, yet he seeks it on his own unbridled terms of licentious fantasy, to his own loss. His digital fantasy is a well that will never draw the water of eternal life.

In reality, the virtual world of internet pornography is a false infinity. It is a grasping to fill an internal, existentially infinite hole with something that is utterly finite. Only through living a life of charity and a sexuality of self-gift over greed will the human person come to know that infinite fulfillment which they so desperately desire. St. John Paul II famously said that the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows far too little. Sex without the context of God’s plan makes no real sense.

Further, JPII’s philosophy of personalism proclaims that human sexuality needs to be governed by real love, not personal interest. Persons are not the means to the end of personal pleasure; they are ends in and of themselves, deserving of sacrificial love. No person, whether they are acting or viewing, is deserving of the manipulative slavery on which the pornography industry thrives.

Daly, no doubt, had real problems to deal with in the real world. Yet instead of seeking help, healing, and forgiveness, he chose to sedate himself in virtual reality by taking out his anger on the clones of real people. He chose slavery over true freedom. At the end of the episode, due to some clever maneuvering of the creatively resilient clones, Daly, in fact, ends up locked and trapped within his ego-centric fantasy world.

May we hear Black Mirror’s warning against the isolative selfishness that our culture so permissively promotes. May we discover more deeply the Church’s beautiful teaching on human sexuality as articulated in John Paul’s Theology of the Body. May we pray constantly for our brothers and sisters who find themselves bound the psychological and spiritual chains of a pornography addiction, especially in this time of social distancing and isolation. For, ultimately, a merciful and loving God seeks to liberate them from their chains and lead them to true freedom.